What can the reader expect of the Chronicles of Narnia series to reveal about Christianity? According to Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Narnia series serves as a refreshing take on what it means to experience the divine in daily life. Christianity is portrayed in a more humanizing light through C.S. Lewis’s imaginative interpretation of Christian doctrine. In the following excerpt from The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, Williams examines the portrayal of female characters in the Narnia series.
The charges of sexism or misogyny, though, are harder to counter. Even a very sympathetic commentator like Stella Gibbons (author of Cold Comfort Farm and a rather unexpected admirer of Lewis) complains that Lewis disliked “women who have entered rather boldly into the world that men have reserved for themselves. The domesticated, fussy, kind woman gets an occasional pat on her little head — (Mrs Beaver in The Lion, Ivy Maggs in That Hideous Strength).” Much feeling has been generated by the banishment of Susan from Last Battle because “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She was always a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up” (Last Battle Ch. 12 , p. 741). Susan has forgotten Narnia apparently with the onset of puberty, and this has led some to conclude that she is “damned” for reaching sexual maturity.
This is unfair. We have already met (in The Horse) a mature Narnian Susan, courted by the heir to the Calormene throne. Her failure is not growing up. It is the denial of what she has known, rooted in her “keenness” not to grow up but to be grown-up, a very different matter. “It is the stupidest children who are most childish and the stupidest grownups who are most grown-up,” we are told in Chapter 16 of The Silver Chair (p. 661). Susan is guilty of what Edmund in The Lion is initially guilty of, no more and no less, which is the refusal to admit the reality of Narnia when you have actually lived there. In The Lion this denial is one of the things that open the door to Edmund’s more serious treachery (so it is hardly a gender-specific matter); the issue is precisely that truthfulness which again and again — as we shall see — emerges as the central moral focus of the Narnia stories. And of course Susan’s longer-term future as an adult in “our” world is left entirely open. Lewis himself wrote in 1960 to a young reader distressed by Susan’s defection that he was reluctant to write the story of Susan’s rediscovery of Narnia.
Not that I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting to Aslan’s country, but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write. But I may be mistaken. Why not try it yourself?
Nor does Lewis in fact give us a series of weak or ill-defined female characters. Lucy’s courage and determination are a constant theme in the books where she appears. In Prince Caspian, when Edmund says “’to Peter and the Dwarf’ that girls ‘can never carry a map in their heads’”, it is Lucy who retorts “That’s because our heads have got something inside them” (Prince Caspian Ch. 9 , p. 370) and ends the conversation. In Dawn Treader Chapter 8, Lucy again castigates her male companions for being such “swaggering, bullying idiots” when Edmund and Caspian quarrel over who will be overlord of the island where water magically turns things to gold (p. 484). Aravis in The Horse is as forceful and intelligent a figure as any. It is true enough that Lewis seems to be all too ready to deal with the extremes of the spectrum where female characters are concerned — witch-queens and nannies. But in between there is rather more than some readers have noticed of ordinary female intelligence; and the depiction of male jostling for position among both boys and men, and the lethal consequences of this male pride, is none too flattering. It will not do to see Lewis as a simple misogynist. It is tempting to say that the further he gets away from theorizing about gender characteristics, the better he is in depicting women; the problem with the ill-starred Jane in That Hideous Strength is — as Stella Gibbons once again observes — that she has to carry an uncomfortable weight of theory in the very complex plot of that strange work.
Rowan Williams is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. A poet and theologian, he is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England. He is the author of The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, published this month in the United States by Oxford University Press USA.
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Image credit: Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes and Georgie Henley in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Copyright 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, LLC. Used for the purposes of illustration.